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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Cutting Room Floor: Abortion and the Cities of Refuge

Last Sunday, in looking at the cities of refuge in Joshua 20, we saw that one of the lessons they teach about God is how highly He values human life.  In Gen 9:6, after the great flood, God gave this law: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”  God values human life so highly because He made man in His own image.  Therefore, to kill a human is to sin grievously against the image of God.
The cities of refuge demonstrate this in at least three ways.  First, the existence of a sanctioned avenger of blood shows that it is good and right that a life be required for a life.  Second, that the avenger of blood was well within his rights to kill the manslayer if the manslayer ever ventured outside the walls of the city of refuge shows that even in the case of an unintentional killing, it is good and right that a life be required for a life.  Third, that the manslayer was required to stay in the city of refuge until the death of another – the high priest – could be substituted for his own shows that God requires a life for a life…even in the case of an unintentional killing.
As I prepared the message for last week, it occurred to me that this passage offers strong commentary on the abortion debate.  As you know, many in the pro-abortion lobby assuage their consciences by arguing that an embryo or fetus is not a human being, therefore it does not have the rights of a human being, therefore it has no claim to life, therefore it is lawful and morally permissible to terminate a pregnancy.  Some concede that at some point in the gestation period, the mass of tissue becomes a human, although no one is able to put a finger on when that is.  Others who support late-term abortion argue that the baby isn’t human until it has fully exited the birth canal. 
But it really makes no difference what they say or what we say.  God is the ultimate judge so it really only matters what He says.  So what does God say about unborn children?  Are they human?  Should their lives be valued as highly as yours and mine?
Exodus 21 is helpful here in that it prescribes the appropriate restitution for various crimes.  Regarding the crimes that we studied Sunday – murder and unintentional homicide – it says this: 12 "Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. 13 But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee.”  So this is perfectly consistent with Joshua 20.  Murder carries the death penalty, but for an unintentional killing, the killer may flee to a city of refuge.  That is how the killing of a man is to be handled, but what about the killing of an unborn child?
  22 "When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman's husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine.
 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life,
 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:22-25)

What is described here is clearly an unintentional crime.  It involves two men fighting with one another, not with the pregnant woman.  There was no intent to harm her, nor to harm her unborn child.  Yet, if the violence results in harm to the unborn child, the perpetrators must pay accordingly.  If the child dies, the perpetrators must die.  When we take these verses and compare them to the earlier verses regarding the killing of a man, we must come to the conclusion that God values the life of an unborn child as much as the life of a man.  The penalty in both cases is death.  In fact, it could be said that God desires a greater recompense for the killing of an unborn child than for the killing of a man – for even though the killing of the child was unintentional, there is no mention of a city of refuge for such an offense
So if God made no provision for the preservation of the life of a person responsible for the unintentional killing of an unborn child, how much more then does God desire vengeance for the intentional killing of an unborn child?  For this reason, I believe those who participate in the abortion industry are storing up wrath for themselves.  God clearly considers an unborn child to be a human being, and the killing of an unborn child to be an act worthy of severe judgment.
Let me make a couple of points to help us keep this in the right perspective.  First, the grace of God can and will and does cover any sin, even sins of this magnitude.  We have all sinned in countless ways that make us worthy of eternal damnation, and yet for those who repent and believe, those sins are all forgiven.  If you have ever had anything to do with an abortion, God beckons you to repent, and if you do so, He will forgive you.
Second, that God values so highly the lives of unborn children does not sanction any kind of vigilante justice against those involved in the abortion industry.  Romans 13:4 teaches that God has instituted human government to be “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”  We are to leave such things to the governing authorities.  Further, all those who die without repenting of their sins, will receive a judgment far beyond any that you or I could administer.  “'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom 12:19b).
That being said, let us continue to be vocal defenders of the lives of all humans, including the unborn. For they too are made in the image of God.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Perseverance of the Saints - Part 3

This is now the third installment in a series on the blessed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.  As a reminder, let me again give our working definition of this doctrine, taken from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology
The perseverance of the saints means that all those who are truly born again will be kept by God’s power and will persevere as Christians until the end of their lives, and that only those who persevere until the end have been truly born again.
Last time we saw that both the work of both the Father and the Son ensure that those who believe will be kept in Christ.  This time I would like to start out by looking at a couple of passages that reveal the Spirit as well working to make certain the future salvation of those who believe.
The opening chapter of Ephesians begins this way: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.  This is a call to worship God because of the inheritance He has given us in Christ, and it is important to note that these are heavenly realities.  Although these things are spoken of as being given to us in the past tense, they are being kept for us in heaven (1Pet 1:4).  The text then goes on to list some of the blessings that make up our inheritance: election (v4), predestination (v5), adoption (v5), and redemption (v7). 
In light of the fact that these blessings are part of our future inheritance, it would be natural to ask, “how sure are these promised blessings?  How do we know we will receive these things?”  This concern is addressed in v13, In Him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of His glory.  The word “guarantee” is an important one.  The underlying Greek word is defined as the “payment of part of a purchase price in advance,” and can be translated first installment, deposit, down payment, or pledge.
The word “sealed” is also an important word to understand.  The Greek verb is defined “to mark with a seal as a means of identification.”  It is a mark of ownership and also carries the idea of the protection of the owner.    
So when a sinner hears the gospel and believes, that person receives the Holy Spirit, who serves two functions pertaining to the security of our salvation.  First, the Holy Spirit is the seal of God, God’s mark of ownership on our lives.  All those who have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are owned by God, who according to Jesus will not let go of them (John 10:28-29).  Second, the Holy Spirit represents a down payment on the believer’s inheritance, which is being held in heaven.  The Holy Spirit is God’s earnest money, so to speak, guaranteeing that the promise of glory will be kept.  The two terms “sealing” and “guarantee” communicate an iron-clad certainty that the inheritance given us in Christ and held for us in glory will be in our possession some day.  (See 2 Cor 1:21-22 where Paul uses the same two terms to describe our being established in Christ.)
So far, we have seen teaching from John and Paul on the issue of perseverance, but there is also a wonderful passage in 1 Peter that clearly points toward the certainty of believers attaining their future salvation.  1 Peter 1:3-5 is similar to the passage we just looked at in Ephesians in a couple of ways: it begins with the exact same words – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” – and it tells of our heavenly inheritance in Christ. 
As many of you know, 1 Peter was written to exhort believers to be faithful and holy in the midst of persecution.  It is fitting then that Peter would begin the epistle by calling attention to our future inheritance, which he describes as imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1:4-5).  Here we see two layers of certainty that we will receive this inheritance – the inheritance is being kept for us, and we are being guarded for salvation.
And it is not simply human grit and determination that secures this inheritance.  Rather is it the “power of God through faith.”  It is God’s power working through personal faith that guards us for salvation.  God Himself is energizing our faith until we have possession of all the blessings of our inheritance.
With the context of the whole epistle in mind, let me ask this: what comfort could these words be to a person suffering persecution if there was the possibility that he or she could fall away from the faith and lose his or her salvation?  The very reason that Peter starts the letter by speaking of the believer’s inheritance is because of the comfort that comes with the certainty of our salvation, especially in the context of the doubt so often caused by suffering.  The recipients of the letter stood to lose everything in their lives at the hands of their persecutors – everything but the inheritance of their salvation.  There is great comfort in knowing that though all else may fail us, God by His own power is guaranteeing that when this life is over an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance will be ours. 
Next time, we’ll begin to look at some of the objections to this doctrine.  In the meantime, I encourage you to take a close look at all the volatility in the worldwide economy right now.  The job market, the stock market, the housing market…all of it would seem to be saying there is no such thing as a sure thing.  With that in mind, meditate on 1 Peter 1:3-5 and consider where our hope should be placed – on earth? Or in glory?

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cutting Room Floor: "But they have chariots!"

In the message on Sunday, I mentioned some of the ways we try to justify our unfaithfulness to the Lord.  One of the chief ways is found in Joshua 17:14-18
The people of Joseph came to Joshua complaining that their territory was too small for their large numbers.  Joshua conceded and told them to take the land of the Perizzites and the Rephaim as well.  The tribe of Joseph replied, “The hill country is not enough for us. Yet all the Canaanites who dwell in the plain have chariots of iron, both those in Beth-shean and its villages and those in the Valley of Jezreel.”
Joseph had plenty of real estate, consisting of both hill country and plains.  Were they to possess every part of their allotted portion, they would have had plenty of room.  The problem was that the plains were occupied by Canaanites with chariots of iron.  We’ve talked some about the distinct advantage that chariots had over foot soldiers - they were mobile fighting platforms that allowed the archers who rode on them to keep a safe distance between themselves and the enemy while also having the speed and mobility to strike quickly and decisively.  They could reach the foot soldiers but the foot soldiers could not reach them.
And these were not your typical run of the mill wooden chariots.  There were made of iron, practically indestructible.  And so convinced were the people of Joseph that they could not defeat these chariots that they stayed in the hill country and eventually asked for more land.  Taking possession of the plains seemed to be an impossible task.
Humans are masters in the art of self-excuse.  We hold others to high standards but when it comes to an area of unfaithfulness in our own lives, we excuse ourselves by magnifying whatever it is that impedes us from obedience.  We produce physiological, psychological, relational, or emotional reasons why we are unable to overcome a certain habitual sin.  I’ve tried and tried but I can’t beat this. 
It is almost always the case that someone who speaks words like those is striving in his own strength against a temptation that has captured his attention and focus.  It is a common experience to become so taken with the enormity of the obstacle in front of you that you forget about the surpassing greatness of the God who promised He would grant you victory over that obstacle. 
This is exactly what the tribe of Joseph did.  They forgot the sufficiency of the strength of the Lord.  God told them precisely what to do when they became overwhelmed by the sight of the enemy: "If you say in your heart, 'These nations are greater than I. How can I dispossess them?'  you shall not be afraid of them but you shall remember what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, the wonders, the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm, by which the LORD your God brought you out. So will the LORD your God do to all the peoples of whom you are afraid (Deut 7:17-19).
God promised that He would give the Israelites victory over their enemies.  Their duty in moments of fear was to remember the greatness of God and His history of protecting His people and bringing utter destruction upon their enemies.  At this point in Israelite history, God has an excellent track record against chariots.  Pharaoh’s chariots have been at the bottom of the Red Sea for over 40 years and all the chariots of Northern Canaan have been used for firewood (Exod 14; Josh 11).  Surely the fact that this new batch of chariots is made of iron would not pose a difficulty for Almighty God.  Just prior to the allotment of the land, God unequivocally stated, "I myself will drive them out from before the people of Israel" (13:6).
Likewise, we also should look to what God has done for us in Christ.  We were dead in trespasses and sins, servants of the prince of the power of the air, and by nature children of wrath.  But God made us alive, raised us up, and seated us with Christ, marshaling His own power to remove from us the guilt of sin (Eph 2:1-7).  Reflecting on that truth will bolster our faith that He can deliver us now from the power of whatever sin entangles us.
If the Israelites were required to fight in their own power, they most likely would have failed.  But since the Exodus, the Israelites have benefitted from God working on their behalf, working through them.  So the chariots excuse was hollow because they were not to fight in their own power but in the power of God.  Joshua rejected the excuse, saying, “You shall drive out the Canaanites, though they have chariots of iron, and though they are strong” (17:18).
But what about us?  Can we expect God to work on our behalf, to help us live faithfully?  Yes, if we are in Christ.  God’s objective for those He has redeemed is to sanctify them, that is, to transform them into the image of His Son for His own glory.  He has every bit as much interest in our holiness as He did in the Israelites coming into the land.  Philippians 2:13 tells us, It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  The power of God at work in us is the fuel of sanctification.  Paul writes in Ephesians 3:20 that God is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.  Ephesians 1:19-20 reveals that this power that works in us is the same power that raised Christ from the dead. 
So we have unparalleled power available to us in our sanctification.  This power gives us what we need in order to be faithful. But just like the Israelites had to go and take the land, we also have to strive toward holiness.  The New Testament is filled with such imperatives:  discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness…make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue…work out your own salvation…strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord…abstain from the passions of the flesh  (Phi 2:12; 1 Tim 4:7; Heb 12:14; 1 Pet 2:11; 2 Pet 1:5). 
Where we run into trouble is seeking to do this in our own power, rather than trusting in God for the power to obey.  There are at least a couple of the references mentioned above in fragments that if put together show the cooperation that takes place in sanctification:
Now may the God of peace…equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever (Heb 13:20-21).  God equips us for obedience.
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil 2:12-13).  We work and God works.
Our striving against sin must be done in the power of Christ.  We move forward trusting in Him to equip us to obey.  In 1 Cor 6, Paul names a number of what we might consider “big sins” and declares that they can be past tense realities for those who are in Christ:  neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6:9-11). 
If we say that we cannot be faithful in a certain area of our lives, the truth is that we are either striving in our own power or we are not striving at all.  If we will strive for obedience trusting in the grace and power of Christ to enable us to obey, we will be able. 
Are you, like the Israelites, more impressed with the formidability of the obstacle before you or with what God has accomplished in Christ?  Christ overwhelmed our sin on the cross (Rom 5:20), the very sin that you claim you cannot overcome. Like God called the Israelites in Deut 7 to remember God's past work on their behalf, you also should meditate on what the cross accomplished for you.   It may be that the cross of Christ has become a peripheral entity in your life.  But the more you gaze upon the cross, the beauty and the horror, the more you will trust God and love Christ, and the more you will want to be like Him. 
Chariots are no match for God and neither is the sin with which you are struggling.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Believer's Joy in Suffering

As we’ve gone through the book of 1 Peter in Sunday School, I have thought several times that this series has been very timely since we have had a number of people who are suffering in various ways.  The more I look at the book, though, the more I believe that its message is always timely.  That’s because trials in the Christian life are the rule, not the exception.  And while the specific emphasis of 1 Peter is on suffering well under persecution, the broader message calls us to be faithful in all kinds of difficulty.
We’ve been reminded every week that Peter’s goal for this letter is not to encourage the recipients to merely survive their suffering, but that they would strive to be faithful and holy in their conduct in the midst of suffering.  That is to be the most prominent outward manifestation seen by those around them. 
But what about the condition of the heart?  Is there any instruction about what should be going on inside us while we suffer?  I believe so.  Concerning our salvation, Peter writes in 1:6-7, In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 
In our suffering, the condition of our hearts is to be joyful.  That is definitely counterintuitive to the sinful human mind.  Joy would seem to be the opposite internal reaction to personal suffering.  How can there be joy and grief at the same time?  
Well, for a believer, this is not only possible, but probable if he or she understands three truths regarding suffering joyfully.
The first truth pertains to the reason for joy in suffering.  What is the object of the joy mentioned in these verses?  “In this you rejoice…”  “This” refers to the “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time,”, including the imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance being kept for us in heaven (vv4-5).  The important thing to recognize is that the object of our joy is transcendent and eternal.  It does not change with our circumstances.  It is the one thing we can count on.  This is why Peter writes in v13, “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  Our future salvation is our hope in all circumstances.
My children can be taken from me.  My wife can be taken from me.  My health, my money, my friends, church, reputation, livelihood, everything…I can lose it all.  BUT because I am being kept for salvation by God’s power (v5), my salvation cannot be taken from me.  And because that salvation is the object of my joy, my joy cannot be taken from me either.  This is why Jesus told His disciples in John 16:22 that after His resurrection no one would be able to take their joy from them – His resurrection would seal their salvation.
The second truth pertains to the relationship between joy and suffering.  It is easy to misunderstand the kind of joy referred to in this passage.  The word “though” is not found in the Greek text of v6.  Most of the major translators believe that it is implied by the grammar of the verse.  I think that is fine, but it is important that we don’t put too much weight on that word in our English translations.  This is not a joy in spite of suffering, as if it is defined by the suffering.  This is not a special kind of joy that enters the scene when things in our lives go wrong, and then we go back to our plain old everyday joy when our circumstances improve.  Rather, it is the perennial condition of the heart of a believer who meditates on the imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance, which is our salvation (vv3-5).  The joy is there all the time and it is not affected by circumstances, whether comfortable or painful, because the object of that joy – salvation – is there all the time.  It is eternal.
The grief on the other hand is occasional.  It is occasional because the objects of that grief – various trials – last only for “a little while.”  The grief of a believer is qualitatively different than the grief of an unbeliever.  An unbeliever’s grief is characterized by despair (1Thess 4:13).  There is no room for joy there.  A believer’s grief is filled with hope because no trial is ever the final word – we are being guarded by God for a salvation ready to be revealed to us (v5).  So, these verses, rather than speaking of a joy defined by grief, speak of a joy that transcends all circumstances, including the grief of suffering.
The third truth pertains to the result of joy in suffering.  What is the purpose of our rejoicing in our salvation during trials?  V7 tells us explicitly: So that the tested genuineness of your faith…may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 
Trials test our faith.  When we rejoice in salvation during those trials, our faith passes the test – it is shown to be genuine.  The result of that passed test is praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  That means that our trials are the vehicles by which our faith is proven and for which we will be rewarded.  That is precisely why Paul writes in 2 Cor 4:17 that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…”  Every difficulty in our lives is a unique opportunity to demonstrate that our faith is genuine by rejoicing in our salvation in the midst of that difficulty.  That is cause for rejoicing! 
So when a person has no joy during trials, what does that mean?  One dark possibility is that that person is not saved.  He or she has nothing to be joyful about.  The trials are not part of the process of sanctification, but merely a down-payment on the eternity of suffering that awaits them.  But for those who show the fruit of repentance but who have a lack of joy during a trial, it is most likely the case that they are not meditating on and celebrating the certain salvation that will be theirs in heaven.  Salvation is the object of the joy, so if the believer is not intentionally mindful of that object, it should be clear that joy will be elusive.
In what way are you being tried?  Is joy the condition of your heart in the midst of that?  Meditate on the gospel – the holiness of God; your birth in sin; the hell that you earned through your repeatedly sinning against God; the hopelessness of your plight; the grace and love of the Father; the sinless life, atoning death, and literal resurrection of the Son of God; the gift of your new birth, repentance, and faith; and the resulting inheritance that is yours only by the grace of God and the merit of Christ (Eph 2:1-10).  May the truth of that produce an eternal joy that transcends your light, momentary affliction.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Perseverance of the Saints - Part 2

Last time, we looked at the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints and how it fits logically with the doctrine of unconditional election.  This time, I would like to start looking at the classic texts upon which this doctrine is founded.
First, let me give you a definition of the doctrine, which I forgot to do last time.  Wayne Grudem’s definition is a good one: The perseverance of the saints means that all those who are truly born again will be kept by God’s power and will persevere as Christians until the end of their lives, and that only those who persevere until the end have been truly born again.  
If I were asked to make a case for this doctrine using only one book of the Bible, I would choose the Gospel of John in a heartbeat.  Just as John provides clear teaching on the doctrine of unconditional election, so also it clearly teaches the perseverance of the saints.
If I were further pressed to present a case for this doctrine based on only one chapter in the Gospel of John, it would be chapter 6.  The context of the passage is important.  Early in the chapter, Jesus performs the famous feeding of the 5,000.  The next day, the crowd finds Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus reads their motive in seeking Him – they simply want more to eat.  He challenges them not to seek perishable food, but to seek the Bread of Life, that is, to believe in Him.  The scene comes to a head in v36: “But I said that you have seen me and yet do not believe.”  In the following verses, Jesus explains why it is that they have not believed in Him even though they have seen Him and His signs.
  37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.
 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.
 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day."
The first key to understanding this text is to know what Jesus means by “comes to me.”  What does it mean for someone to come to Jesus?  V35 tells us: Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”  Here Jesus is using a common rhetorical device called parallelism, which states one truth in two different ways.  So, “whoever comes to me shall not hunger” is stating the same truth as “whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”  That is important because it shows that “comes to me” and “believes in me” are two different ways of stating the same truth.  To come to Jesus is to believe in Jesus.
We can then go to v37 and better understand what is being communicated.  There Jesus teaches that all who the Father gives Him will believe in Him, and the one who believes in Him He will never cast out.  In other words, there are none who the Father has given the Son who will not also believe in the Son.  Further, there are none who will believe in the Son who will be cast out.
In v38, Jesus affirms that His purpose in coming to earth was to do the will of the Father.  This shows Christ’s single-minded focus on accomplishing what was given Him by the Father to do.  And what was the will of the Father?  V39, that Christ would lose none of all that the Father gives Him.  This is stated in a negative way – there are none that Christ would lose.  Jesus then delivers the same truth in a positive way in v40 – everyone who believes in Christ will have eternal life and Christ will raise him up on the last day. 
Those two verses, vv39-40, are simply two restatements of v37.  The entire four verses – vv37-40 – communicate one truth: All those whom God has given the Son will certainly believe and will certainly be raised on the last day by Christ.  V44 then puts an even tighter vice on this truth, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws Him.  And I will raise him up on the last day.” With that verse added into the mix, we can also rightly add an additional element to the truth being communicated: All and only those whom God has given the Son will certainly believe and will certainly be raised on the last day by Christ.  Therefore, it is not possible that someone can believe in Christ, that is be saved from sin, and then not persevere to the end.  The group of individuals given to Christ by the Father is identical to the group that will believe in Christ and is identical to the group that will be raised by Christ. 
The case is bolstered by John 10:26-29 –
  26 but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.
 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.
 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.
 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand.
This passage is similar to chapter 6 in that Jesus is talking to Jews and explaining to them why they do not believe in Him.  They do not believe because they are not of Christ’s sheep.  Who are these sheep?  V29 identifies them as those whom the Father has given to the Son.  Therefore we have a parallel passage to John 6:36-40.  There is a group chosen by God and given to the Son.  The only difference is that in chapter 10 this group is referred to as a flock. 
Those who are of the flock believe, or follow, Christ.  Those who follow Christ are given eternal life, v28.  By way of restatement Jesus says, “they will never perish,” AND “no one will snatch them out of my hand.”  This verse contains the strongest negation in the Greek language.  A more literal way to render it would be “they will never, ever perish.”
Ch6 showed that Christ is the one who will see to it that those who believe will be raised on the last day.  This is reiterated in 10:28 in that Christ states that no one will snatch them out of Christ’s own hand.  But we get an expansion of the believer’s security in v29 where we find that the Father also prevents them from being snatched away.  What is the point?  It is impossible for those who are not of Christ’s flock to believe, and it is impossible for those who believe to not receive eternal life. 
This gives us two assurances. First, someone who has truly believed will inevitably persevere to the end.  It is impossible for them to lose their salvation. Second, the perseverance of those who believe is not achieved by one’s own will power, but by the power of God in Christ – Christ will raise them up on the last day, they are guarded by the hands of the Son and Father.    
Praise the Lord that I do not enter Christ by my own power and I do not stay in Christ by my own power.  It is all of grace and by God’s power alone.
Next time we will look at some further passages, including one that teaches that the Holy Spirit also is contributing to our security, which means that the perseverance of the saints is a Trinitarian endeavor!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Perseverance of the Saints

A few weeks ago in a cutting room floor post, I argued in favor of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints based on the covenant-keeping nature of God.  Because God is a covenant-keeper and our redemption is based on the New Covenant in Christ’s blood, we can be sure that those who have been redeemed are certain to spend eternity in His presence in heaven.  Since writing that post, I have received a couple of questions regarding texts in the Bible that at first glance seem to indicate that a person can lose his or her salvation.  Having written a series of blogs answering the major objections to the doctrine of unconditional election, I thought it might be helpful to do a similar series on the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. 
We’ll start out this series by looking at a positive case for this doctrine.  Then in subsequent posts, we’ll address the typical objections and prooftexts.
People have spoken of this doctrine - that a believer is eternally safe in his or her salvation – using a number of different terms or phrases.  The most common are “once saved, always saved,” “eternal security,” “security of the believer,” and “perseverance of the saints.”  Which one of these phrases is to be preferred?  I do have my own preference.  Let me explain why.
I grew up in the Southern Baptist denomination, for which I am grateful to God.  (Had I been raised in another tradition, it is possible that I would not have embraced the inerrancy of Scripture as the foundational principle of my biblical understanding.)  The Southern Baptists have always affirmed the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, and in my neck of the woods, the phrase “once saved, always saved” was used.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this phrase, however, over the years some have taken that phrase (as opposed to the text of Scripture) and extrapolated from that phrase that a person can be saved and then continue to live in unrepentant sin without losing that salvation. 
Let me clearly state that this is not what I mean when I speak of this doctrine.  As we will see, the idea that one can be truly saved and then walk away from the faith or live in unrepentant sin is completely unbiblical.  If someone professes belief and then fails to show the fruit of repentance, it is not that that person has lost his or her salvation.  Rather, we will see from Scripture that such a person was never saved to begin with.  It is because of that unbiblical connotation carried by the phrase “once saved, always saved” that I think the phrase “perseverance of the saints” is a more accurate and helpful way to refer to the doctrine.  Perseverance indicates standing firm in one’s faith and conduct, which the Bible tells us is the inevitable result of a genuine conversion.  Therefore, by using “perseverance of the saints” we prevent the misconception that someone can be saved and never live like it.
Before we begin looking at any specific texts, I’d like to show why the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is a natural result of the doctrine of unconditional election, and conversely, why it is inconsistent to uphold the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints while also denying the doctrine of unconditional election.  The reason I’m taking the time to do this is because there are many people who do not believe that God chooses who will be saved, but that God prevents people from losing that salvation.  In my own experience, there are far more people like that than who deny both election and perseverance. 
In a sense, every biblical text that teaches the doctrine of unconditional election unto salvation also teaches the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.  How can that be?  Well, if God has predestined someone to salvation, then they are predestined to salvation.  Predestination is the act whereby God makes it the certain destiny of an individual to be saved.  To my knowledge, Scripture never speaks of salvation as a temporary reality, but as a present and eternal condition.  So if God has predestined some to eternal salvation, it is impossible for those people to lose that salvation. 
Further, the doctrine of unconditional election is founded upon the absolute sovereignty of God.  It teaches that salvation is of the Lord, that we are His workmanship (Eph 2:1-10).  If God is sovereign over our salvation, He is sovereign over all of it, from regeneration to glorification.  God does not give up His sovereignty once we have been saved.  He has made every part of our salvation sure.
Now, what I’ve just argued by deduction, Romans 8:28-30 teaches explicitly.  These verses are a classic text on the doctrine of unconditional election, and they tie election conclusively to glorification:  28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.  Vv29-30 are sometimes called the “golden chain of redemption.”  There is an unbreakable link between the foreknown, the predestined, the justified, and the glorified.
What does it mean to be glorified?  To be glorified is to receive an eternal, heavenly resurrection body.  In 1 Cor 15:12-58, Paul discusses the importance of Christ’s resurrection for the believer.  He teaches that the bodies of dead believers will be raised at Christ’s return and transformed into imperishable bodies.  Those who are still alive at Christ’s return also will have their bodies instantly changed into new, resurrection bodies.  This is presented as the inevitable destiny of the believer.  It is the last phase of the redemption of God’s people.
Having understood that, we can see the significance of the link between election and glorification in Romans 8:28-30.  All those who are elect will be eternally saved.  Therefore, using Romans 8:28-30 as our key, we can rightly take any passage that teaches the doctrine of election and understand that it also supports the doctrine of perseverance. 
The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints fits perfectly with and is the natural outworking of the doctrine of unconditional election.  On the other hand, the doctrine of perseverance is fatally inconsistent with the denial of unconditional election.  Those who deny unconditional election believe that election is conditional, that is, that God chooses to save those whom He foreknows will choose to believe in Him.  What that means is that God is not sovereign over the salvation of men.  Man himself determines his own destiny in regard to salvation.  Man is in control.  His condition is not determined. 
The reason this is inconsistent with the doctrine of perseverance is that perseverance is based on the notion that God is sovereign over salvation in that He by His divine power keeps us in Christ.  In other words, the doctrine of perseverance teaches that God is in control.  So for someone to reject unconditional election but accept perseverance is to say that God is not sovereign over salvation until the unbeliever freely chooses to become a believer.  At the point of conversion, then God becomes sovereign and the believer has no control over whether or not he retains his salvation.  This creates a preposterous and unbiblical picture: prior to conversion, man is sovereign and God is not; after conversion, God is sovereign and man is not.  This is an excellent example of wanting to have your theological cake and eat it, too.
In future posts, we will look at a Scriptural case for perseverance.   Let me leave you with this.  If God does not providentially guard us for eternal salvation, but it is up to us to keep ourselves in Christ, how then can we say that salvation is by faith and not by works?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Post on the Canon

On Tuesday, I inadvertently posted an article on top of Brian's article, "Why these 66?".  If for that reason you did not see his article, please be sure to take a few minutes to read it.  This is a very important issue because there is much confusion regarding how we received the Bible.  Many of the arguments of skeptics against the authenticity and authority of the Word can be dismissed if one has a rudimentary knowledge of the history of the canonization of the Bible.  If you have any questions or doubts about how we got the Bible, this entire series is well worth your time.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Do you love Him more than father or mother?

  So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven,
 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.
 Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
 And a person's enemies will be those of his own household.
 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
  (Matt 10:32-39)
It is no big thing to claim to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  It is no small thing to actually be one.  There are many in the church who serve and pray and do all of the right outward things, but who will be shown to be imposters on the last day (Matt 7:21-23).  The doing is nothing if the doing is not a true reflection of a converted heart. 
In Matthew 10, Jesus spoke of the characteristics of a true disciple.  He was sending His disciples out on a missionary journey, and this mission was one that would lead to ridicule, rejection, persecution, torture, and for some, even death.  All of those things would come as a result of acknowledging Christ before men and taking up one’s cross and following Him.  Choosing to follow Christ in the face of such horrible treatment is a line that still divides those who are truly disciples and those who merely claim to be. 
But what is it in the heart of a true disciple that compels Him to follow even when the world hates him for it?  Or said another way, what is it that is missing in the heart of the one who claims to be a disciple but who ceases to follow when the consequences are costly?
The answer is in v37.  It is the only verse in the passage that speaks of the heart as opposed to outward actions.  What separates the true disciple from the imposter is a heart that values Christ above all other human relationships: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”  Love of Christ is the force that makes it a beloved thing in the heart of a disciple to follow Him into the fire.
It is telling that Jesus uses close family relationships to make this point.  Jesus of all people knew the cost of being faithful in spite of the opposition of family members.  In John 7, His brothers teased Him about His miracles and tried to coax Him into going public.  V5 gives this commentary, “For not even His brothers believed in Him.”  Concerning His rejection by those closest to Him, Jesus said in Matt 13:57, "A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household."
This is why Jesus said what we find in Matthew 10:35:  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  Jesus Himself is a line in the sand.  Not everyone in your family nor everyone in my family will follow Christ.  And if we live lives of radical obedience to Him, we will likely be ridiculed, scorned, and rejected by those we love the most.  Indeed, the most vehement reaction against us may come from loved ones more than strangers.
I’m thankful to have benefitted from the example of others who have valued Christ above the praise of men.  When I was in high school, my dad was offered a ministry position at a church in Dayton.  It was clear to him and my mom that the Lord was leading in that direction, but from a human perspective it made no sense.  He had three teenage kids heavily involved in church and school activities.  He already had a valuable ministry as a lay leader in his current church.  He was a Certified Public Accountant with his own accounting firm and was well-respected in the community. 
Moving to Ohio would mean leaving much behind.  On top of that, it would mean receiving much less, in worldly terms.  To take the church position he would take a 50% pay cut.  He would sell his house for a loss and be moving to a place with a far less favorable housing market.  In fact, for the foreseeable future, he and his family would have to settle for a small apartment.
But perhaps the biggest consideration…ALL the extended family on both his and my mother’s sides of the family lived in Texas, ALL within half a day's driving distance.  Moving would mean living 20 hours from the nearest relative, a sea of land separating his children from their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  For that reason, some relatives made it clear that my dad’s moving his family to Ohio would mean being disowned.
But the Lord called.  And my dad went.  It enraged some.  Others it plunged into despair.  Only now, 18 years later, are some of the family relations beginning to thaw.  It made no sense to anyone but my dad, his wife and children, and His Lord.  To my knowledge, he never waivered; he just obeyed.  He loved Christ more than father or mother.
My sisters and I all found spouses “among the yankees” and produced a cumulative 11 grandchildren for my parents.  We’ve enjoyed the blessing of living in the same town for over a decade now.  But a call to further ministry has beckoned my parents back to Texas.  From a human perspective, it makes no sense for them to go.  In Ohio, they are able to spend every holiday with their kids and grandkids.  They can attend every birthday party, piano recital, baptism, and sporting event.  They can watch closely as their grandchildren grow and change.  Moving to Texas will mean all of that goes away, being replaced by a few days together once or twice a year.
But the Lord has called.  And they are going.  I’m sure somewhere there are some who are shaking their heads with incredulity.  But I can assure you that is true of none of us who are being left behind.  We have come to expect such things from my parents.  They love Christ more than son or daughter.
We are sad, to be sure.  But we are comforted by the knowledge that we will share joys in eternity that far outshine any blessings of this world.  Now is the time to pour ourselves out in service to the Lord.  They are following by going to Texas, we are following by staying here, all motivated by the surpassing riches of Christ.
An intense affection for the Savior above all human relationships is the condition of the heart that produces a burning desire to serve Him wherever He takes us.  I have seen this in my parents.  I’ve also had the privilege of seeing it in others, like my in-laws, and in Ken and Amy Ebert.  These people have all done crazy things in obedience to the Lord, by their actions declaring to all, “whatever the cost, we will follow Christ.”
What about you?  Are earthly affections preventing you from surrendering all?  If so, you are turning down eternal rewards in order to hold on to momentary vapors.  May the Lord kindle in us all a love for Himself that drives us to pick up our cross and follow Him.
“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” Matt 19:29

Posted by Greg Birdwell